Coastal Commuter

Home is where the art is

Art is where you find it, and I usually know where to look. In fact, both San Francisco and Los Angeles offer some marvelous fine art museums that allow one to drink one’s fill of beauty and provocation.


Considering its expanse and population, Los Angeles is understandably loaded in the museum department: The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Getty, the Geffen, the Skirball Center, the Hammer, and so on. But ultimately, it’s the galleries that draw me in, whether Los Angeles or San Francisco.

When we can’t get to the National Gallery in London or the Louvre in Paris or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, we can see the masters in coffee-table books or on video. But if we want to see the up-and-comers, the discoveries and the less famous, the galleries are where to go — and where the chic, freaks and geeks frequently intersect.

The Diego Rivera Gallery at the San Francisco Art Institute on Russian Hill is a favorite. It’s a student-directed exhibition space and the home to the historic Diego Rivera mural. Something about the energy of young creators and their freedom to experiment in a learning environment is undeniably attractive. And there are more niche galleries like the San Francisco Art Exchange, which specializes in what the management calls “the popular image,” including renowned graphic designers and rock ’n’ roll photographers.


But ultimately, I find myself trusting and relying upon certain curators whose tastes are aligned with my own or who can open me up to new work that excites me. Thus, I embrace the likes of Varnish Gallery where an exhibition by the East Bay-based pop surrealist Isabel Samaras dazzled with finely wrought mashed-up images of pop-culture icons like the castaways from the ’60s sitcom Gilligan’s Island sporting Maori warrior tattoos — or Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Spock of Star Trek re-imagined as an amorous Lone Ranger and Tonto.

My most recent visit to my go-to San Francisco art-ery, White Walls/The Shooting Gallery on Geary at the edge of the Tenderloin, was the usual revelation with the efforts of disparate artists on display. Owner-curator Justin Giarla is all about challenging, witty, graphically bold work. A typically fantastical White Walls show was Robert X. Burden’s Toy Box, featuring massive oil paintings of multiple superhero action figures from Batman to the Thundercats and G.I. Joe laid out to recall a strange cross between a religious Middle Ages tapestry and religious frieze.


The standouts at the latest White Walls exhibition I attended included I Haven’t a Single Explorer on My Planet by Polish-born, New York City-based artist Olek — a crochet installation with a full-sized boat at its center, which Olek characterized as an expression and symbol of liberty. To be precise, it was an entire room with walls, floor and ceiling covered by multicolored knitted doilies; in the center of the space was a dinghy, completely enclosed in crochet. To enter and investigate, patrons had to don cloth booties to protect the knitting while padding around on it.

But for me, the real stunner at this show was Re-imagination of the Book, a subtle and thoroughly original mix of found object, collage, diorama, and meta-text from British artist Kerry Miller. Enclosed in clear plastic cases, Miller’s pieces are old books that are cut apart and rebuilt as magnificent portals to the illustrations that were once within but are now trimmed, spruced up with ink and watercolors, rearranged, refined and recalibrated. Thus A Hand-Book to the Order of Lepidoptera, a volume from 1896, becomes a veritable 3-D explosion of butterflies that appear to be erupting out of the open volume and remain in place as if frozen in flight. Another book about flora and fauna now seems to be a blooming garden set in its carved-out pages.


To say this visit to White Walls was thrilling might not be an understatement. And of course, there are similarly invigorating gallery experiences to be had in Los Angeles. The nomadic Ghettogloss space overseen by the peripatetic Fiora Boes is currently ensconced in the eastside Eagle Rock neighborhood, but I fondly recall a night at the Melrose Avenue location in Hollywood that spotlighted the droll and extensive kitsch art collection of songwriter Allee Willis, not to mention a karaoke machine, at least one member of Earth, Wind & Fire, and a fantastic Korean-Mexican fusion food truck in the parking lot.

Last but never least, I need to give props to the Merry Karnowsky Gallery on La Brea, where I’m always intrigued and stimulated by the exhibitions and regularly dazzled and delighted. Karnowsky presents a plethora of brilliant artists, including someone I consider the king of the pop-surrealists and a master of the Lowbrow art movement, Todd Schorr. The last opening I attended here was a high-profile Los Angeles showcase for the posthumously acclaimed street photographer Vivian Maier, whose pedestrian career as a nanny and her fiercely private nature kept her talents a secret. After Maier died, an enormous cache of negatives and prints were discovered at an auction, and her insightful, sometimes beautiful, sometimes gritty photos became known. Finding Vivian Maier, a feature-length documentary film about her and the discovery of her work was set for release this year. But I had a chance to get up close and personal with her art because I have the good sense to hit some remarkable galleries, whether up north or down south.

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Twitter: @cultureblaster